Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chicago Chronicles--- Part II

I so loved the mist crawling in....

At the Milennium Park, the seamless structure designed by an Indian architect (or so I think)

Navy Pier, an amusement park, near Lake Michigan

Yes We Can and Obama mania was everywhere, from the streets to the souvenir shops.

From the observatory atop Sears Towers.

Where was I now? Ah, that lone window, those thoughts of people in my distant country...

I was rather stuck by the utter lack of public phones, or maybe I was just in too posh a locality to find one.

The first morning after the conference was lazy, a long night's sleep. Jet lag had hit big time then and even I, who is famous for being able to fall asleep just about anywhere, would be wide awake all night and end up with a monstrous headache every morning. Maybe that is what a hangover feels like...(now I wouldn't know why I thought that here).
The previous evening, from one of those fancy malls, I had bought a book on walking around Chicago. Dressed like a bear, very uncomfortably, I passed through North Michigan Avenue (take Bangalore's Brigade Road, stretch it several more miles, add a broader road and more high end brands, that the Avenue for you). A rough route in mind and a vague destination, to Millennium Park, there I was, passing by lanes and side roads.

I have the map in hand, but here in India, we ask people and they all tell us, even if they don't know! And so I ask and draw some strange looks. I pass through all those names we all grew up seeing on Star Movies...Bloomingdales, Harley Davidson, Starbucks. It isn't very hard to feel like I'm still watching one of those movies now, you know that kind of I-am-an-observer feeling. Like any other city, Chicago has its not so shiny backlanes, where there are junkyards and grease and dirt. I pass that too, a little too quickly. The water that I saw from my room up above, Lake Michigan, is close by now and I freeze some more.

The weather is better that day, but still cold. All smiles, I step gingerly into the Jane Addams Memorial Park, suddenly all quiet, lonely benches, empty paths and just so beautiful. Its still very very cold but I cannot resist sitting there. There is the skyline of downtown Chicago, all those tall glass buildings and the nice drive. Just like Queen's Necklace, Mumbai. The snow is in some places dirty, its been a day since it snowed. Its even melting slowly. But the trees are red, barren even, the ground is a beautiful white. I so love it. I try to photograph my footprints, find myself a discreet corner overlooking the lake and wrote this.

It feels very liberating to be there, the city, a country for me to find and explore. At a distance is Navy Pier and I reluctantly leave the park, it was getting too cold for comfort. The Pier is an amusement park, closed for the winter though. The place just goes on and on, first toy stalls and souvenir shops and candy bars and coffee. There is a Santa Claus! I get my picture taken too! Its so much fun to feel like a kid, I tell you! :-)

Its a long walk, through more shops and a greenhouse and a lovely stained glass museum to the end of the pier. There is a board which has the distance of various cities painted on it. Delhi is all of 7,000 odd miles. That's a moment I remember I felt so far away. Some 7,000 odd miles plus some more, maybe around 10,000 plus kilometres from home! Eek! It was rather overwhelming.

I look at my watch and its just 4 pm, but its rather dark already, quite disorienting. I take the public bus to look for Millennium Park. I must say this, even at the risk of being thoroughly racial, I was scared inside the bus then. Scared about all those typical Americans, just scared about being there at that moment. I walk around a bit, it starts to drizzle lightly. I turn a corner and just then, I see mist creeping in. Ah, I am all better now.

I finally reach Millennium Park, but then, suddenly, its time to go. I am to stay with a friend's sister in the suburbs. Taking the Metra is another experience, a girl helps me by lending her phone to make a call (and I revert all my earlier thoughts). A 45 minute ride and I am at Prospect Heights, a very beautiful suburb with, just like those movies again, long houses and cars in front and sidewalks and snow and more cars and shops with neon lights. Its a cozy house, a good time, and great Indian food I have there.

Next day I head to Sears Towers, still one of the tallest buildings in the world, with 103 floors. The 360-degree view is beautiful. And then the Millennium Park with its oh-so-cute bubble or whatever it is called designed by Anish Kapoor. I take lots of pictures, peep over the skating rink, walk walk and walk some more all over the place, East Huron Street, Illinois Street, fancy names. I don't lose my way, I largely stick to the avenues I know.

(Insert: On the way to an international journalists' dinner hosted by GE on the second evening, we pass through Harpo Studios, the place where Oprah Winfrey shoots her show. Yeah!)

The next two days go by then. Temperature dips to -13 degree C one day and I use that day to shop for souvenirs. Ah, the taxi driver who takes me to a mall is busy talking on the phone about his divorce and finding a new girl friend. Highly entertaining! The malls are nice, like any other. I try to buy the iPhone, they wouldn't sell me one without a connection. But you can get unlocked ones there too. Ha, India is not the only place for your Burma Bazaars! I buy the usual trappings, chocolates, watches, perfumes, jewellery, others that I know I will never use...

The day I am to leave, it snows very heavily again. Back to the airport, a hateful time as always. I meet some Gujarati shopkeepers with a predictable American twang, eat some donuts, get bored out of my wits.

At O'Hare you need to remove your shoes too during security check! I mean, come on!!

Its been a great trip, I know me more. I know the limits I will go, I know more now, what I can do, what I won't. I know I love travel. I also know that beneath the clean roads and the busy people and all that, I don't really like American life much, for several reasons

The things that travelling teaches you!!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chicago Chronicles-- Part I

Somewhere along the way...

A beautiful church near the Ritz Carlton on North Michigan Avenue

My first view of the Windy City from the room, that Monday morning when it snowed....

Just after Thanksgiving weekend, ahead of Christmas, the mall in the Ritz building was decked in holiday colours.

Ma was rather amused that day at the airport, a day after I turned 25, seeing me rather apprehensive. I was not one to be afraid of travel, the two best friends, constantly on the phone with me, knew too. But well, this was thousands of miles away from everyone I knew, my phone wouldn't be working if I needed to call and I was a bit worried. But well, it was going to be one adventure, all the way to the US of A.

Now, almost as a rule, I hate flights. Even a very short one. I like the taking off part and then when the plane banks and you see all the lights below but that apart, I hate everything else about the flight. They are long, even the blue sky gets boring after a while, turbulence is like any other bad road, food is bad, and well, the whole exercise of waiting and check in and boarding is Boring. My flight from Bangalore to Brussles, Belgium was again boring, though I managed to sleep good. We touched Brussles and I think it was then that I lost track of time for the next one week. Brussles airport is very long, being the connecting destination for a lot of countries, the queues are incredibly long too.

I must tell you here, American Airlines is BAD! Forget food, its horrible on all flights, but generally, the airlines is probably the worst I have ever been on. Severely worn out and my body clock all disoriented, I land at O'Hare Airport at whatever time it was. Long immigration queues, but thankfully, the journalist tag gets me through quicker.

I open the doors and suddenly it was like I was being slapped, such was the cold. I had on very warm clothes but nothing could have prepared me for the cold and the light snow flakes that landed on my coat. I think it was just around 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening, though it seemed darker. That's another thing that eventually begins to disorient me, by 4 in the evening, it is all dark and that began to feel a little wierd.

A taxi took me to the Ritz Carlton in downtown Chicago. First impression? Well, I was too tired to have any, everything was too dark, I kept imagining several worst case scenarios and suddenly I was missing home, all within five minutes of arrival! The hotel reminds me of the Leela Kempinski here, opulent and showy. But the room is small and warm and cozy.

Early next morning, severe jet lag and a sleepless night later, I throw open the curtains and I remember gasping. There is heavy snowfall, the first time I have ever seen snow. The buildings below are all covered, I can feel the cold from inside. In the distant, I can see water, Lake Michigan, I later discovered.

The conference I was there for was ok, the international conference of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) which I attended with another Mumbai journalist at the invitation of GE Healthcare. Two days flew past. The food! Ah, I must speak of that. Now, I am not too fussy about food. I prefer my rice but anything vegetarian will do. But there I was, desperate for food of any kind. Every meal time was spent hunting for something veg and by the end of the visit, I was thoroughly sick of bread and its variants.

And then the cold! Having been born in winter, I have always loved the cold. The snow was beautiful, everything was, the sidewalks covered in white, the rooftops, the tiny snowflakes, the slippery roads, a huge ground with bare trees, all white, everything a lovely white. It was freezing cold but not cold enough for me to not enjoy it thoroughly. The beautiful long coats and shawls and stoles and long cozy. Wish Bangalore would have at least some bit of winter, even December doesn't get cold enough here, if you ask me.

The first few days, I was too jet lagged, too tired to have the energy to think. I met people from over a dozen different countries, Esra from Turkey, Maggie from China, someone from France, a Spaniard from 'Maadreedh' (Madrid, I love the way they pronounce the names!). Though there was not much time to try and build contacts, it was good fun to see the world there.

Every evening, I would stand looking out of the window from the 22nd floor of the Ritz Carlton, looking at the snow and the lights below. It felt strange to be so far away. There were not many, actually, hardly any, public phones to call from. The internet was missing too for most of my stay. I have this need to know that I can reach my little world any time of the day or night. That was what I missed. Missed the most that luxury of knowing that I could pick up the phone and call someone at the other end.

It felt great though, that here I was, so far away from my country. Now, the US is not that big a deal, every other person goes there. But when you are in a different country, all alone, there is this other feeling, a kind of achievement? Hmmm...not really, more like a sense of okay, I have done it alone kind of feeling. When you know that you are the only one you can depend on, there is this strange exhilaration. I see this every time I travel alone, a heady sense of responsibility.

Like I always say, there is really nothing like travelling. No matter how good or bad, it is, nevertheless, an experience. The lessons you learn, the things you see and hear, the discoveries you make about yourself and your limits....there is really nothing like travelling.

The most exciting stories of my week long trip was yet to come though....

Monday, March 16, 2009

It Was All Quiet At Melkote

Now it’s a quirk that I seem to have acquired over the years. Being the only child, I have always gone to places alone. Back at uni, every once in a while I would get very claustrophobic and take off to a nearby place for a day. I would walk around, be silent, even switch off my phone and just be.

For the first time in almost three years, I did that again this Sunday. There is this lovely place called Melkote, about 140 kms from Bangalore. Now this place used to most well known for its Sanskrit village, everyone spoke that beautiful ancient language that I tried so hard to learn but had to give up for lack of a teacher.

Early Sunday morning, I took multiple buses to reach this place. There is a direct bus from Bangalore, I was told. But being horrible at rising early, I conveniently missed it and spent some four hours trying to get to the place. Driving should take just about three hours; the roads are good till Mandya and fairly ok for the next 35 kms till Melkote.

What most strikes you the moment you leave a city is how cheap everything gets all of a sudden. I hate the way the city makes you think about money all the time. Once I’m out, everything is quarter the price. The bus ticket itself is cheap, just Rs 18 from Mandya, a bit steep after that for a ride on a funny looking, longish autorickshaw.

I sleep most of the way; ma is always envious of the way I can sleep just about anywhere. The ride till Mandya is noisy, the bus crowded and smelly. I conveniently miss the bus to Melkote again and end up waiting some more. There is a bus I find finally and the ride, for the part that I am awake, is good. There are miles and miles of green meadows, so lush, just what my weary eyes need.

There are the usual village scenes then, all along the way—women in very bright, very colourful sarees balancing kids on their waist and water pots on their heads, sashaying down the road, a bullock cart, the oxen horns painted blue and red, old wrinkled men smoking away, naked kids playing marbles, surprisingly, a huge charaka from decades ago, clothes hung out to dry, bright houses, sometimes a tractor, stacks of hay, winding roads, men and women bent over double at paddy fields, an old woman selling cow dung cakes for fuel, lots of growling monkeys, I could just be anywhere in my country; the very same scenes would roll over the miles.

Melkote is not much different from what I remember of it from a visit very long ago. It is still a village, like the thousands of others that break the monotony of highways and long roads everywhere. It has though, again like several beloved places, become quite tourist savvy, one of the prices of that thing called “development”. The moment I get down, there are those longish autorickshaws all over the place, the drivers offering a trip halfway to the top for a ridiculous Rs 30 (which I made the mistake of taking and promptly regretting). They asked me if I wanted to see “local”, meaning the other sights. I didn’t bother finding out how must I would need to shell out for that. The trip though was rather nice, took me through winding lanes of some beautiful old houses.

Half way to the top, I stopped for a cool cucumber, cut open with a flourish and garnished with a pinch of chilly powder and salt, all for Rs 3! Melkote is a steep climb up, lined on both sides with beggars of all ages. Every few feet there is welcome relief too, people selling refreshing masala buttermilk for Rs 3 a glass, ‘prasada’, flowers, tender coconuts.

I pull myself up to the top. The temple of Cheluva Narayana Swamy is dark, not too well maintained. But the view from the top is great, the lovely town of Melkote on one side, plain brown fields and tall trees on the other. The breeze is cool and I so needed that then. The place is rather crowded, people very loud but still better than the truly touristy places.

I walk down the longer route down, the houses lovely, quiet, beautifully painted. Several pictures later, there is the ‘kalyani’ to go to, a huge tank where people take holy dips. I make friends with a lady who is selling the famous Melkote ‘puliogere’, curd rice. She has a daughter doing her diploma and asks me whether a job in the city would be easy to get. Its quiet; the water not too clean. But its quiet, that is all I need.

The water reflects the structures around the kalyani. A boy dives from atop and makes a splash. The water is disturbed, but it’s quiet again very soon. There are couples holding hands coyly, young boys, a marriage party, quietness. And then it begins to rain. There was the Sanskrit research centre, the other temple, the gurukula and other roads left to explore.

For another day, another visit. For this time, there was quiet. Resolutions. And a peace. A lovely journey back. More than I could ask for.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When Ginger Used to have a Blue Ball....

My Ginger, that arrogant, spoilt to the core old dog of mine, used to have a ball. Blue it was, in colour. One of those rubber ones that used to cost Rs 5. Now Ginger, when he was young and less lazier than he is now, decided when he wanted to play and but of course we had to oblige. He would pounce on the ball, catch it in the air and attack it with much enthusiasm, until a while later when his interest moved on to other things.

But when he was playing with the blue ball, he would literally torture that piece of rubber, biting into it, thrashing it around, digging his teeth in, growling at it....used to be rather funny. You have to hand it in for that cheap toy, despite Ginger's enthusiastic 'manhandling', the ball always bounced back, higher and higher.

And then one day, Ginger bit so hard into his blue ball that there was a tiny hole in it. Still the ball could bounce back, much to his delight. But he kept digging his teeth into that tiny hole and the hole gradually became bigger and bigger.

And one day, the blue ball stopped bouncing back.

And Ginger's interest moved on to other things.

Edit: Here is what a very very dear friend sent to me along with some beautiful pictures from the internet after reading the above post. (an edited version)

You know who you are, thank you.
Poor lil Ginger with thinkin capabilities limited to his species must've thought that he'd stopped d bouncing of the 'blue ball' forever but lil does he know that several million such beautiful blue balls made that are still bouncing in and out of hands of kids even today. He's unaware that the bounce of the 'blue ball' can never be stopped by his lil naughty act but it continues to bounce n spin endlessly bringing joy n cheer into the life of every single kid who is still playing with it. The kid may grow old, the 'blue ball' doesnt. It gets passed on to his siblings as a prized possesion n it forever continues to bounce n delight each of its new owners :-)
Why the very world we live in is a beautiful example for a 'blue ball' that never stops....
The 'blue ball' will never ever stop bouncing....Ginger is the loser not the Blue Ball.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Edited Non-Rant Post

So ok, I listen too. This is an edited non-rant post.

What do I want to write? I still do not know. Neither do I care much. There is some bit of numbness, actually, it's again a I-couldn't-care-any-less.

A lot of things have happened, but then, such is life. Courage is one quality I discovered I had, courage to Live a life. Maybe it was some weird premonition I had, when I called this space My Life, My Rules.

I wish not to write more. Hurt? Maybe. Angry? Very much. At a lot of things, at a lot of people. But then, I wish them all well. A good rant would have done me good, but there is another space for that, that of friends. Right now, nothing could make me feel better than lashing out. But I know me, I shall be miserable later for it.

To use a cliche, at the end of the day, there were some good days. For what my wishes are worth, I wish peace. Happiness too. To all. Most of all, peace within, for that is what makes all the difference there is to be made.

As for me, when I get up in the morning, there is a stillness. It comes from choosing to make peace. I am not there as yet, but I shall get there very soon. I know me.

Sometimes, very rarely, for the very fortunate, life offers a second chance at, well, living. A rare re-birth. I am much honoured. It is to me, the peace I seek.